"Yaar Dada, ek baat toh batao. Yeh Che Guevara ney koi kitabein bhi likhi hain kiya[Dada, tell me something. Did this Che Guevara ever write any books]?” asks Shill. “Vo leader tha, author nahi [he was a leader, not an author],“ replies Rumi. Taken in one shot, this subtle, gripping scene from Geo TV’s new drama Jo Bichar Gaye illustrates how lofty rhetoric and political idealism trickles down to conspiracy and murder.
It is 1971 and Dhaka University in what was then East Pakistan is the epicentre of rebellion in politically turbulent times. Rumi (Wahaj Ali) is a Bengali student leader who has decided that Mujib Ur Rehman's six points are not enough, only independence from West Pakistan will be enough for him.
His friend Shill (Umer Cheema) is not interested in the finer points of freedom and political philosophy and anyone who does not agree with their agenda has a target stamped on their back — soldiers, West Pakistani students and the many Bihari or Urdu speaking Muslims who migrated post-Partition.
The fall of Dhaka was a politically charged and emotionally fraught time for Pakistanis who saw soldiers fighting against impossible odds in a land where the majority population had turned against them. While the horror stories of what Bangladeshis went through have been explored in their country, the other side of the equation — the suffering of Biharis, Urdu speaking migrants and those who identified as West Pakistanis — has rarely been explored on Pakistani screens.
As the 50th anniversary of the 1971 war passes, there has been a recent spike in interest, with at least three other projects on the subject being released in quick succession. The film Khel Khel Mein tried to engage the younger generation on the topic with a story set in the present, while the mini serial Khaab Toot Jatay Hain describes how language and cultural identity became incendiary touch points at Dhaka University. Based on a Pakistani submarine that came under attack during the war, the telefilm Hangor gave an account of the brave sailors that managed to evade enemy warships, and the perseverance of their families.
Jo Bichar Gaye uses a wider lens than all these shows, allowing for a Bengali view, but then takes a deeper dive by linking the timeline of political failures to the human cost. Jo Bichar Gaye is loosely based on a book by Colonel Z I Farrukh detailing his experience of the events and his time as a prisoner of war. The then Captain Farrukh (Talha Chahour) is a newly arrived young officer from West Pakistan who can see that this unstable situation is already beyond untenable. The first four episodes show us a vacuum of leadership, compounded by a wilful, arrogant blindness to public sentiment in East Pakistan by the establishment in the western side of the country. Filling the void of understanding is suspicion, hatred and communalism egged on by Indian intelligence agency RAW.
A dark, tense thriller that does not waste a scene, Jo Bichar Gaye cuts a sharp contrast to the regular viewing line up, reminding us that Pakistani dramas can be more than domestic melodrama and toxic lovers. Ali Moeen’s well-written script and short, effective dialogues are brought to chilling life by director Haissam Hussain, who overcomes a lack of access to original locations to give us a surprisingly evocative picture of the times. It is hard to pinpoint Hussain — his previous works display an outstanding ability to handle a diversity of projects. From the acclaimed period piece Dastan, to intimate, emotional dramas like Durre Shahwar, unforgettable family comedies like Aunn Zara and sophisticated pieces like Kuch Pyar Ka Pagalpan, his work shows us he has mastered the art of storytelling to perfection.
The serial shows us a spectrum of authentic characters shaped by circumstance and heritage. Wahaj Ali gives us an outstanding performance as Rumi, the rebel or freedom fighter, depending on your perspective, who conflicted and impatient for change. He is human, not a hard-edged villain. Rumi’s eyes soften his indignant, angry speeches betraying more than words can tell about his feelings for Soniya (Maya Ali), his need to protect her and the determination to win. This is Talha Chahour's second foray into acting and he has proved to be an excellent addition, bringing both charm and freshness to the intelligence officer he portrays.
Chahour's undeniable screen presence brings to mind the classic heroes of the past — instead of kicking walls or threatening the heroine (which is what passes for romance these days), he is vulnerable, unassuming and always standing up for what is right, despite the heavy odds against him.
A special note of thanks to the makers for reminding us of the intelligent, strong women who lived through these times. Soniya is Rumi’s cousin who befriends the ingenuous Captain Farrukh. Her family is a reflection of the unity and naivety of the times — her mother is a socialite from Lahore, her father, a Bengali, is a highly placed civil servant and all of them live in the protected, posh area of cantonment. Frequently disturbed and disgusted by her cousin’s views, Soniya wants no part in any kind of secession. She can see the route from Rumi’s passionate oratory to Shill's murder of three West Pakistani students.
Maya Ali works well with a strong director like Hussain, showing us what a good actor can achieve if she is given something more than the one-dimensional bholi larkiyan [innocent girls] our dramas are littered with. Her dialogue delivery, body language and expressions convey all of Soniya’s stubborn individualism and courage at every step.
Nadia Jamil’s delicious portrayal of Shabnam Anwar ul Haq: terrifying Aunty ji, gossip Queen and Soniya’s exasperated mother is another gem. The world may be collapsing but evaluating appropriate rishtas must go on according to the formidable Begum, another track highlighting fragility of life and its every day concerns before the tidal wave of history.
The violence is aesthetically illustrated without graphic scenes, leaving the character’s threatening posture and looming shadows to reveal the inevitable loss of lives behind anaesthetising words like “collateral damage”. Umar Cheema as Shill is a frightening depiction of those blinded by bloodlust and nationalist grievances, who pushes aside Rumi’s anti-violence stance as foolish idealism. The Svengali-like Professor played by Usman Zia, who initially mentors Rumi, is another figure played with chilling accuracy, building the intellectual framework behind the horrors that are to unfold.
The pictures of the martyrs that Hussain displayed in the opening credits of the first episode and the innocent civilian victims of all ethnicities remind us we have a duty to remember the dead. Acknowledging the senseless bloodshed and loss of war should be the best motivation to heal and strive for peace between nations and people.
Like Haissam Hussain’s previous work Dastan, which centred on Partition, Jo Bichar Gaye does not indulge in triumphalist patriotism or demonisation. Whether Rumi is a rebel or a freedom fighter is left for the audience to decide. Some, like Captain Salahuddin, are ready to die for Pakistan, while others are willing to die for Bangladesh, and many are willing to kill. The best takeaway from this story is the way those that seek to erase another’s humanity also erase their own. Suddenly, friends and neighbours become strangers because they have become the ”other“ for whom there cannot be empathy and against whom cruelty is permissible in the name of retribution.